In Memoriam, Stephen A. Smith

Memories of one of my favourite professors

Stephen A. Smith, who taught me Contract Law and Advanced Common Law Obligations at McGill, and for whom I was a research assistant for two summers, has died. It is very sad news indeed. He was a good teacher and a good man.

Professor Smith was a leading private law theorist. He once joked that “every law professor only has one thing to say”, and there is truth in this, I’m afraid, as in any good joke, but he was very much the exception to this rule. Still, others will be better placed to speak to his accomplishments. As much as I liked him and enjoyed working for him, private law was and has remained beyond me, and indeed I don’t think I realized how important a scholar he was until much later; I’m afraid we took our professors for granted a lot. But I wanted to try to explain why I liked Professor Smith, despite not having been very interested in his subject.

As a teacher, he was always interested in why the law worked the way it did. One way in which this manifested itself, which I don’t think was especially popular but was probably my favourite part of the three semesters he taught me for, was having his second-year students read David Ibbetson’s A Historical Introduction to the Law of Obligations. Knowing that, centuries before Donoghue v Stevenson, there had been a case about a shipper who “by force of arms”, introduced salt water into the plaintiff’s wine barrels? I was there for that. Also, because he was interested in how things fit together and made sense, Professor Smith had no piety for courts that failed to live up to that standard. He wasn’t the only one of my professors from whom I learned this, but he was definitely one of them.

At the same time, he was mild-mannered, pleasant, unpretentious, and supportive. When a torts professor asked a class to describe the reasonable person, someone said that it was simply Stephen Smith. And he was.

Well, most of the time. Perhaps, to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, to discover the limits of the reasonable one needs to cross them a little into the unreasonable, and that’s what he did in the research he got me to help with. One of his jobs for me was to find out about remedies in French law. This sounds straightforward enough, until you realize that French law has no concept of remedies at all. It thinks in terms of obligations and the execution of obligations, rather than rights and remedies like the common law, and translating one into the other is by no means obvious. Professor Smith then went one better: what about remedies in Roman law? I’d never studied Roman law; good luck to me… And that wasn’t all. The best one, in fact, was this: try to find out if there actually exist private law examples of rights without remedies. That brought to mind Cristobal Junta, a character from the Strugatsky brothers’ Monday Starts on Saturday, a former inquisitor become researcher into wizardry and magic who regarded it as a point of principle to only investigate questions that had no answers, because if an answer exists, what’s the point of looking for it?

It wasn’t always easy to wrap my head around these things, but I think I learned a lot from them. Not so much about remedies, alas, but about law more generally, and about curiosity and thinking outside the box. I’m grateful to Professor Smith for having given me these opportunities ― despite my not having been an especially good student in his classes. These assignments may have made my head swim at the time, but they are some of my fondest law school memories now.

It is trite to say that one will miss a person who has died. But there it is, I will miss Professor Smith. He made me think harder and better, and he made the world a more interesting place, even if it was always in a low-key, reasonable, way. Thanks, and farewell.

Why Read Cases?

Some advice for law students

Legal education in the common law world revolves around reading cases. Perhaps a little less than in the past, but still. But why? And why should students spend time on reading cases in full, instead of finding short summaries? Especially now that (unlike, say, 100 or perhaps even 50 years ago) there are great textbooks that summarise whole areas of the law, and (unlike, say, 20 or perhaps even 10 years ago) online sources, some of them quite good, that summarise individual cases, and indeed short and sometimes plain-language summaries produced by the courts themselves?

Before I explain why, I mention a fundamental fact which students at the outset of their legal careers probably don’t think much about, understandably: your legal career, if that’s the one you choose, may well extend for 40 or even 50 years, and during this time the law will change a lot. Think about what the law was like in 1972, and what it is like now. How many statutes and even cases from back then are you encountering in your classes? Some, no doubt; perhaps quite a few if your lecturers are more historically-minded. But still. For lawyers who graduated in 1972 or 1982, almost all of the law they are applying now was made after they left law school.

In a superficial sense, law school cannot prepare you for this, because we don’t have time machines and cannot really guess what the law of the future will look like. So how do the lawyers who graduated in 1972 and 1982 manage? It’s because law school doesn’t only or even mainly teach you what the law happens to be at the moment in time when you go there. Instead, it teaches you the skills you need to understand the law as it develops over the course of your career. This is why law school is not just a trade school, but part of a university: it is doesn’t just teach you how to do something, but how to think.

Reading cases is one such skill, for (at least) three categories of reasons. The first has to do with learning what the law is; the second, with expressing oneself in the law’s language; the third, with solving problems like a lawyer. All of these, it is worth noting, apply across all areas of law ― nothing in what I will say here is specific to public law.

To begin with, you need to read cases to know what the law is because many of the most important legal rules and principles are not recorded in legislation, and are only given form, however imperfect, in judicial decisions. Moreover, even legislation seldom stands by itself. You need to know how it is interpreted and applied by the courts. Of course, you can pick up a lot about the cases decided in the past from the abovementioned sources ― textbooks, online summaries, etc. Maybe, from this perspective, you could get away with not reading cases in law school, though it’s not a good idea. These sources may be wrong, or, even more likely, they may be incomplete or slanted in one way or another. You want, as much as possible, to be able to judge for yourself.

And then, what happens when you graduate, and new cases keep getting decided? Suppose the Supreme Court decides a case that bears on an ongoing issue you are helping a client with. You cannot very well tell them to wait for a few months or even years until someone else does the work for you. You need to know how to read the case for yourself and update your advice to your client accordingly. Practicing to read and understand cases in law school is how you prepare for that.

Next, you need to read cases to write and speak like a lawyer. Like any profession, law has its own jargon. It can be peculiar. To be sure, law has become less attached to some of the more archaic English or even Latin words and phrases it used to be fond of ― though of course you may still need to be comfortable with them to understand older cases. But that doesn’t mean that lawyers now speak like any other educated persons. You need to know, for example, that you can have a claim at common law, or in equity, and not in common law or at equity. Why? I’m not sure there’s a reason. It certainly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But you need to know these things to establish a common language with your fellow lawyers and with the judges, without which you cannot be a full member of the legal community ― or an effective representative of your clients’ interests.

Reading cases is the most obvious way in which you will acquire this peculiar language. Textbooks and summaries often abstract it away in the process of distilling the cases’ holdings to single sentences or short paragraphs. They might help a little, but they won’t be enough. I suppose you might read statutes, but I’m not sure that’ll be as effective, and I’m certain it will be boring. (You should sometimes read statutes too, to know what they are like. But you don’t need to do it as much as with cases.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to read cases to understand how lawyers and judges solve problems. In his famous report of Prohibitions del Roy, Coke CJ claims that he told James I that the King could not decide cases himself, instead of letting his courts do it, because

His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which law is an act which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it.

While a lot in that report was made up, this idea was true in 1607, and it remains true today. The law has its own way of thinking through difficult questions, and being a smart person, which you are if you have made it to law school, isn’t enough to grasp it. In sports, you probably won’t be picked for a high-level team without some natural gifts. But you still need to train to become a great athlete, and not just someone who could have been one. It’s the same in law.

The cases are where you absorb legal reasoning. Textbooks and summaries focus on giving you the outcome, and not the step-by-step reasoning of the judges. Nor do they usually tell you which arguments the court found unpersuasive, or spend much time unpacking judicial rhetoric, which can be very useful if you are going to persuade judges: giving them ready-made arguments they can re-use will make them more likely to side with you. Lectures may go into such details from time to time, but they are too short to do it much.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for taking your own time and working your own way through judgments. Even if someone could learn all the legal rules that exist when they graduate law school without acquiring ― through long study and experience ― the skills that reading cases gives you, they would be useless to their clients within 10 years. And they’d still have 80% of their career ahead of them. You don’t want to be that person. The good news is that cases are often fun to read. They are stories, often interesting and sometimes well-told. The more you get use to reading them, the more attuned you become to the smaller details that can make them fascinating. And the sooner you start, the better you will be at it.

The Metastasis of Charter Vibes

The rigamarole around the notwithstanding clause this week has me thinking about the reach of the Charter, and in particular, a case that will be heard by the SCC early next year: A.B. v Northwest Territories. While there are other issues in the case, at its heart is a stark proposition: is it required for a government decision-maker to consider “Charter values” (or what I call “vibes”) even where it is accepted that a right is not engaged on the facts? One might think—as I do—that the answer to this question is “no.”

But others disagree, and with some precedent in support, and so the Supreme Court will soon hear this case. A.B. involves s.23 of the Charter, which provides the following:

               Language of instruction

23. (1) Citizens of Canada

(a) whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or

(b) who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province,

have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.

Continuity of language instruction
(2) Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language.

Application where numbers warrant
(3) The right of citizens of Canada under sections (1) and (2) to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of a province;

(a) applies wherever in the province the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds of minority language instruction; and

(b) includes, where the number of those children so warrants, the right to have them receive that instruction in minority language educational facilities provided out of public funds.

As the NWTCA pointed out in the decision being appealed to the SCC, section 23, unlike some other constitutional rights, is rather precise: it delineates who is eligible to enjoy the constitutional right, and so its text inevitably “draws lines of eligibility” that will mean that there will be some “hard cases” that fall on either side of these lines [9]. This is a consequence of the finely-wrought s.23, which could have been phrased more broadly or generously, but isn’t.

As the NWTCA pointed out, this provision requires governments “to provide minority language education to those who have a right to it” [6] but “the government does have the discretion to allow the non-section 23 children to attend the minority language schools” [9]. In the NWT, at the time of the impugned decisions, this process was governed by a Ministerial Directive (and, of course, supplemented by ministerial residual discretion) , which provided that a “limited number” of non-section 23 children could be admitted [10].

Under this process, it was accepted that the A.B. family did not qualify under s.23 [10, 24]. And yet they argued that the Minister, in exercising her discretion and implementing the Directive, were required to consider the values underlying s.23 [28]. The chambers judge named some of the interests that would need to be considered by the Minister under the values-analysis:

…the needs of the linguistic minority and the need to foster the preservation and development of this community, in the exercise of her power over the admission of non-rights holders to minority language schools [28].

At the NWTCA, the majority of the Court rejected this contention. It held that this case did not implicate constitutional rights [59]. Rather, the essence of the claim was that the Minister should have considered values underpinning s.23 in considering whether the Minister properly exercised her discretion not to admit the non-rights holders. But as the Court stated, “[t]he obligations of the provinces and territories to observe and respect the Charter are collateral to the issues that were before the chambers judge” [59]. The point of the majority holding is simple: Charter values cannot be used to extend the protections of the Charter to those who otherwise are not eligible for the specific protections at issue. Rowbotham JA concurred, but would have required the Minister to consider s.23 [136].

In my view, the majority judgment cogently outlines a problem with Charter values—because of the lack of guidance on their scope and application, they can easily metastasize to expand the Charter in unexpected ways. This metastasis can occur in three ways. First, because Charter values are necessarily stated at a high level of abstraction, they can distort the interests protected by a purposive and textual interpretation of specific Charter rights (a concern raised by Rowe J in TWU). Second, a court can align a Charter value with a statutory objective, however broadly-stated, and in the face of a protected right, claim that an administrator can promote that Charter-sanctified statutory objective (as the majority pointed out in TWU, and as explained by Edward Cottrill here). This means that a state objective that otherwise may be directly contrary to an actually-protected right is given the imprimatur of constitutional benediction—that old chestnut. Third, Charter values can be used to “supplement” purported “deficiencies” or perceived lacunae in the Charter text. Because each Charter right delineates and narrows the interests that it protects, it is possible for a Charter value to come into play, even where an individual does not hold the benefit of the right.

A.B. presents this third situation. Like the other cases where Charter values are at play, there is arguably a distortion of the actually-existing Constitution. It would seem odd for there to be a duty on a Minister to consider the Charter where there is no one capable of claiming the right. This means that there is a normative constraint on the decision-maker to consider values (perhaps pale imitations of rights) that may not actually at issue in the case. Should this appear odd, it isn’t necessarily so to those who support Charter values. In Loyola, for example, the plurality seemed to draw an equality between rights and values, such that each are protections that can be claimed in any given case (see Loyola, at para 35). And as one author suggests, perhaps this means that even where a claimant does not have an official Charter right to claim “they ought to have had the protection of Charter values” (see here, at 79).

The key word here is “ought.” What s.23 ought to protect, in the view of one person, is evidently different than the value choices embedded in that provision.  I worry, specifically, about the use of Charter values to defeat the choices made in the Charter on this contentious issue. It distorts this Charter—as opposed to some other Charter of values—to ignore the specific choices made in the text, and to judicially-administer an ever-changing constitution of values, which can be raised where the actual Charter does not apply. The creation of two Charters must be avoided, and this should mean putting an end to expansive Charter values arguments that require judicial extension of existing rights.

There are a number of counter-arguments that could be advanced: some relating to administrative law precedent, and some to the specific context of s.23. It is true that the Supreme Court has referred to an administrative duty to consider Charter values. In Baker, the Court noted that “discretion must be exercised in accordance with the boundaries imposed by the statute, the principles of the rule of law, the principles of administrative law, the fundamental values of Canadian society, and the principles of the Charter” (Baker, at para 56). In Doré, the Court noted that administrative decisions are “always required to consider fundamental values” (Doré, at para 35). Even in the NWTCA decision, the Court claims that it is a “truism that public decision makers should always have regard to fundamental societal values, such as liberty, dignity, and equality” [57].

Putting aside that these values may already map onto existing Charter rights, or are otherwise amorphous and contested (they should not lead inexorably to some pre-determined outcome), I do not think these precedents can be marshalled in favour of the expansive proposition that Charter values are independent constraints on administrative discretion. It is obviously true that a decision-maker is required to consider Charter rights when those rights are argued. So, post-Vavilov, courts have found that when claimants do not raise Charter arguments before a decision-maker or only briefly refer to them, there is no concomitant duty on a decision-maker to engage in a Charter analysis (see e.g. Canada (Attorney General) v Robinson, 2022 FCA 59 at para 28). It’s only a small skip to the next step: of course administrators have a duty to consider the Charter, when a right is claimed, but values in the ether should not expand the scope of the Charter to situations where it “ought”  to apply.

More specifically, and for good reason, recent precedent of the SCC clamps down on these sorts of arguments: specifically City of Toronto and Quebec Inc.  While clarifying that the dominant approach to Charter interpretation is purposive in nature, the Court has finally confirmed that the text remains the starting point to all Charter interpretation. Unwritten principles and values may form a part of doctrinal construction, or construing the scope of a right—but these values must be properly-scoped, and they cannot be used to distort, undershoot, or overshoot the actual rights at hand. This is common sense in many ways, but the simple conclusions from these cases have a great deal of relevance for the continued use of Charter values.

It could also be argued that the specific context of s.23 would permit non-rights holders to act on behalf of the “entire Francophone community” [60]. In this way, the fact that the right is, in part, collective might signal that the Minister should consider s.23 “values.” I think this is wrong. To permit this would be to allow non-rights holders to “piggyback” on those who enjoy the right in question [60]. The collective aspect of a right does not require its extension in this fashion.

People who defend the Charter should be interested in ensuring its scope is limited to the sorts of interests it was meant to protect. The situation we have, these days, with the review of administrative decisions implicating constitutional rights is unsustainable. Most of it distorts orthodox constitutionalism. We have Doré , which can counsel weak review in particular cases when rights are actually advanced; and when rights are not advanced, A.B. brings forward the contention that the Charter applies nonetheless. We have a Charter of Values applying strongly where it shouldn’t, and a Charter of Rights being diluted by a deferential standard of review. This seems odd.

Our Democratic Deficit

Much is made of Canada’s storied democratic heritage, and on this front, there is much to celebrate. But there is also a dark side that has, from time to time—and these days, more frequently—reared its ugly head: the spectre of a parliamentary process that does not encourage either the participation or the deliberation at the heart of most deliberative democratic accounts. The debility of our legislative process began some time ago. One could blame growing PMO control; omnibus bills, dilatory behaviour, or party whipping.  But now, more than ever, the shenanigans around Bill C-11 are an example of the democratic deficit that appears to characterize at least some aspects of Canadian law-making. One example is just one example, but it raises important questions about the process under which this Bill was adopted.

Bill C-11, on one hand, is a wonky bill giving power to the CRTC to regulate and promote “Cancon.” Given all that is happening in the world, one would be forgiven for forgetting that it is a live legislative proposal. Yet it continues to snake its way through our parliamentary process, and it is significant.

I have criticized the substance of the Bill before, suggesting that it vests the CRTC with unprecedented powers of internet regulation, without proper safeguards on the exercise of that power, especially over individual users. The Bill may permit the CRTC to apply ever-changing Cancon requirements on individual users, such that certain content that meets these standards will be prioritized over content that does not. Since the CRTC has the power to adopt these regulations, one might guess that it will be under pressure to impose ever-more protective Cancon measures that require algorithmic regulation. In this sense, it is true that the CRTC is likely attempting to solve a problem that does not exist; more precisely, it may be giving itself the power to create and solve problems that do not exist at some time in the future.

To be clear, the Bill gives the CRTC the power to regulate individual user content on the Internet—content uploaded to TikTok, Youtube, and the like. The scope of the Bill is potentially vast. The CRTC, as an administrative institution, is under intense scrutiny because of allegations of bias. At a time when valuable democratic institutions should be strengthened and renewed, the CRTC is asking for more power when its institutional credibility is questionable. 

 The substantive point is one on which people can agree or disagree. But ideally, the democratic process that accompanies a Bill of this kind should be robust. Instead, the Government’s conduct assures us that this Bill is so pressing that it justifies any number of shortcuts to cut debate, and rush through unexamined amendments.  An important amendment to clarify that any future regulations should not apply to user content was not considered as a result. This amendment would have curtailed the vast discretion conferred on the CRTC. And yet it fell by the wayside, and the Bill passed the House in June.

The Senate process is unfolding now, but it too has been rocky. “Serious charges of witness intimidation and bullying” have emerged in relation to the Senate Bill C-11 hearings. Liberal MP and Heritage Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bittle (in a letter co-signed by another Liberal MP) asked the Lobbying Commissioner to launch an investigation into Digital First Canada, an organization that was scheduled to testify before the Senate committee. The request was based on an allegation that the organization, which advocated for users, received funding from Youtube. Of course, any technical violation of lobbying rules should be taken seriously, though Digital First maintains that it has received assurances that it followed the rules. But coming from government MPs, and in absence of any other investigations about funding sources of any other witnesses, the timing and specific targeting of this organization is highly suspect. 

More importantly, the targeting of this witness sets an unfortunate precedent. Independent Officers of Parliament are designed to be separated from the government of the day, to support Parliament’s role in the constitutional order. The Officers of Parliament are sometimes called to investigate sensitive matters. But it is incumbent on a government member to conduct themselves with a bit of honour. And weaponizing an officer of Parliament to investigate a particular witness only cheapens the parliamentary process, potentially chilling criticism of the Bill’s wideranging consequences.

It’s trite to say that our legislative practice does not meet some idealized standard. C’est la vie. But where the gap is particularly striking, as here, it raises important questions about what Parliament is doing when it passes bills like C-11 under these conditions. Is it really scrutinizing the Bill and its amendments and producing reasoned debate on them? The House hearings were mostly partisan nonsense, to put it lightly.  If groups worry about being investigated if they testify, how representative is the parliamentary committee process?

At the end, I suppose I have no other point than to lament. None of this is to attack the role of Parliament. In our system, Parliament is sovereign subject to constitutional limits, and statutes adopted by Parliament are law, no matter how imperfect the hearing process. But to the extent that the government can control the hearing process, especially on a bill of this sort, it should do so in a manner that permits examination. 150 amendments, one of which could have solved the legal problem that plagues the Bill, were simply left on the table. That is deeply regrettable.

The result is that Bill C-11, with its power gift to the CRTC, will likely become law, even if the Senate process provides to be an improvement. Cultural protectionism aside, the government’s conduct in the parliamentary process has only shielded the Bill from the sort of scrutiny that might better represent the considered views of parliamentarians and those affected by the law. A law adopted under such conditions is likely to be more readily accepted by the public. In the absence of this adequate deliberation, we are left with a skeletal bill, one that will likely affect user content in service of a vaguely defined Cancon goal. Users should rightly be concerned–and so should lawyers.

“Bureaucratese”

Newly-minted Leader of His Majesty’s Official Opposition, Pierre Poilievre, recently announced that he plans to propose a “plain-language law” to tackle “bureaucratese.” According to Poilievre, bureaucratese “costs the economy a fortune.” His proposal will “require government publications to use the fewest and simplest words needed to state information.” Now, much of this proposal is probably noise rather than signal because a general rule for politicians (especially in leadership campaigns) is to heavily discount what they say. The scope of the proposed law is unclear, though it seems that it will apply to statutes as well as other public-facing documents, with the Auditor General testing departments for compliance and even a complaint line to report cases of bureaucreatese. Nonetheless, and abstracting away from the specifics of Poilievre’s proposal for a moment, the topic of bureaucratese is a puzzle. Everyone should want to limit it; but how? Is it worth it? The answer is complex, in part because I have no idea if bureaucratese is widespread. I’m also alive to the idea that this whole post might be bureaucratese of a sort. Nonetheless, I’d like to offer some general responses to these questions.

To the extent bureaucratese exists, it is not a small thing. There is something in the idea that inaccessible jargon makes the law, policy, and administrative decisions difficult for people to understand. In response, other jurisdictions have attempted to address the problem. In New Zealand, a Plain Language Bill is currently under study, which would require the appointment of “plain language officers” to ensure that agencies comply with provisions of the statute. In 2010, the United States Congress adopted a similar law, which requires the designation of a senior official for “plain writing,” the establishment of a procedure for implementation, and staff training.

These laws attack, apparently, the same problem. But it is difficult to establish a working definition of “bureaucratese”. The International Plain Language Association says that a communication is in plain language “if the wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” Seems fine.

But the term “bureaucratese,” to my mind, relates to the specific problem of a public servant communicating to the public in a way that makes the intended message unintelligble. It specifically concerns what the famous grammarian H.W. Fowler called “jargon”: (1) “words or expressions used by a particular group or profession” and (2) “incomprehensible talk, gibberish, with the second arising conceptually out of the first, although this is not how the meanings evolved historically.” The idea is that those accultured in a professional setting will develop language and shorthand to explain complex concepts, and that language may—by design—be impenetrable for those outside the setting

In a d society that relies on discretionary regulation to deal with problems, a professionalized bureaucracy is obviously expected. And “bureaucratese”—jargon—can even be desirable sometimes. Public Servant A talking to Public Servant B about some technical issue saves time by conversing in their field-specific jargon. Bureaucratese might create economies of scale within bureaucracies.

This is one thing. It is quite another when we talk about public-facing government documents, whether positive laws or front-line administrative decisions. But the problem isn’t necessarily equal in these domains. Legislative drafters often must use technical language to capture certain phenomena. A whole host of conventions assist modern legislative drafters in ensuring uniformity and consistency in capturing these phenomena. Complex, esoteric language must sometimes be used to ensure that the exact same phenomena are captured by different laws, over time. I am not an expert on legislative drafting, but it strikes me that plain language in this context must be balanced against the judicious use of technical language, and as I will point out, the costs of ensuring compliance (whether through the snitch line or the Auditor General).

The problem of bureaucratese becomes worse when we consider public-facing communications and administrative reasons for decision. In this context, bureaucratese can have a more sinister quality. Orwell targeted the problem by noting that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Bureaucratese can be a benign method of communication, but it can also be used deceptively, to minimize or avoid regular public scrutiny. People who cannot understand a message might misconstrue its meaning.

One great, recent example of bureaucratese in public-facing communications is found in a press release by Covenant Health. At the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton, Trista Champagne complained that “she and other patients waited for hours on the floor inside what she called a ‘dirty makeshift garage’ at the Misericordia Community Hospital. The floor had dry blood on it. Covenant responded that “[t]hroughout the pandemic, hospitals…have used non-traditional spaces for patients to wait after they’ve been triaged.” The relevant issue term here is “non-traditional spaces.” Like all or at least some bureaucratese, there is truth to the idea that a garage is a non-traditional space. But the phrase appears to be used by hospital administrators and others to describe everything other than proper emergency room care. Here, jargon is being used to diminish or minimize the reality of patients lying on blood-stained floors. We could all produce more examples of this.

Bureaucratese can also be an issue in judicial review of administrative action, because it can obscure the basis of a decision, making it difficult for courts and those affected to tell whether the decision tracks to the law. Some administrative decision-makers, like the Social Security Tribunal, have implemented measures to guide self-represented litigants through the process. Others are farther behind in terms of facilitating ease of access. And the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov implicitly attempts to address this problem by mandating responsive justification in cases where reasons must be provided. A concern about justification begins with the reality that most people meet the government not in courtrooms, but in the mundane boardrooms and offices of the administration. In many of these contexts, there is no comparable legislative process.  Where reasons are required, especially in individualized settings, they are the primary means through which a court assesses whether a decision is reasonable—whether it has been properly justified to the individual affected by the decision.

In this sense, the provision of understandable reasons facilitates contestation of government action by those affected by it. When a decision is wrapped in jargon–economic, medical, what have you– the person who is affected by the decision might not understand what the decision means, and be unable to contest it, or otherwise not understand its implications. Navigating complex bureaucratic schemes, even with the assistance of a lawyer, is not an easy or cheap task. This state of affairs gives rise to concerns about “bureaucratic domination”—the idea, popularized by civic republicans and liberals—that those with superior knowledge may use that knowledge to impose their arbitrary whim on an individual (see Henry Richardson’s excellent text) . In such cases, there is a fair concern that the power exercised may not track to the public interest; or more specifically, that it will evade scrutiny or understanding. It is for this reason that Vavilov seeks responsive justification: to facilitate judicial review, and to ensure accountability of government action. It is also for this reason that the Federal Court of Appeal continues to warn against immunization of government action from review through the withholding of documents or assertion of privileges (see one example of many, Lukacs v Canada (Transportation Agency), 2016 FCA 103 at para 7).

More can be said about this. For now, it is worth pointing out that no one bill is likely to solve the problem of bureaucratese absent potentially costly enforcement. For one, the plain-language bills that have been proposed in the New Zealand and adopted in the US arguably layer an additional level of bureaucracy in order to solve the problem of bureaucratese. This is because the bills usually mandate departments to appoint individuals to police bureaucratese; plain language “officers” and the like. The National Party in New Zealand had this to say about the New Zealand plain language bill:

The National Party strongly opposes this bill. It is the very legislative essence of a solution looking for a problem….National supports the aim of improving the effectiveness and accountability of the public service in using clear, concise, easily understood language in public documents. We do not believe it should be a legal requirement.

In its legislative scrutiny briefing memorandum, the Office of the Clerk considered the requirements in the bill to be uncertain and without consequence. It suggested the committee explore with officials whether non-legislative alternatives exist. We did. There are. National is disappointed that those alternatives were not pursued.
The requirement to appoint Plain Language Officers is particularly galling. Despite assertions that this could be carried out by existing staff, we are in no doubt that taxpayers will be required to fund new roles to give effect to the requirements in the bill. The Government has a track record of massively increasing bureaucracy and in our view this bill will continue that trend.

National’s concerns raise an important point about implementation . If it costs more to implement measures against bureaucratese, then one wonders about the point of the proposal. This is where cost-benefit analysis can be useful. I would expect that a plain language law as applied to statutes or other internal documentation would not change much or would otherwise not be worth it. However, bureaucratese should be limited and controlled in contexts like front-line administrative decisions, where the risk of arbitrariness might be elevated. In such cases, we should think that bureaucratese cannot count as responsive justification–it cannot speak to an individual’s specific interests. Any effort to stamp out bureaucratese should start where it would make the biggest difference.

In Memoriam Reginae

What the Queen meant to me

“Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes suddenly mortal ― there’s the rub!”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

On Tuesday, she is still at work, as she had been for 70 years, swearing in a new Prime Minister. On Thursday, she is gone. It is, I guess, the good, and ― let’s be honest ― the lucky way to go. Not everyone has this good fortune. But it is fitting for Her Late Majesty. Yes, she had it good, for the most part. Yes, she was fortunate, as our republican friends have always reminded us. But she took advantage of her good luck to serve, and made sure that her good fortune was ours too.

Much has already been said, and more will be, and it is difficult to add to it without being banal, ridiculous, or both. All the more difficult because the Queen’s death has affected me more than I would have imagined. As we know, the feeling that the time is out of joint does not make for the clearest thinking.

I did want to bring up something that is mentioned less than the really obvious (and of course true and important) things like the late Queen’s dedication and dignity: her levity. Not every Serious Person would have gone along with the James Bond stunts for the London Olympic Games opening ceremony, or the video of her having tea with Paddington Bear for her Diamond Jubilee. But just as a person truly confident of his or her strength can afford to show weakness from time to time, the Queen was secure enough in her dignity not to stand on it at all times. I’m not sure how many others could, let alone would, have pulled it off.

Let me also mention two personal memories of the Queen, which I hope capture some of what she was to me and to many others.

First, her last visit to Canada, in 2010. I was lucky enough to be in Ottawa for Canada Day ― it was my clerkship year. It was a bright and sunny day, a cheerful occasion, and good times seemed to be had by everyone around.

Canada Day, 2010. The Queen is getting out of the limousine to take place in the carriage that will carry her to Parliament.

And second, her “We will meet again” address in the darkest days of the first covid lockdown, which I watched in New Zealand. Nothing bright and cheerful about it; good times were gone and unsure of returning.

April 2020. The Queen addresses the Commonwealth during the first pandemic lockdown.

This is how it was: whichever of her Realms I was in, she had a wave for us in a time of celebration and a word of comfort in a time of anxiety. She seems to have had a preternatural talent for getting both, and every other public word or gesture, exactly right. More luck, perhaps. But it was our luck more than hers. We have had it good, and we must somehow see to it that we make as much of our good fortune as she did of hers.

Farewell, Your Majesty. And long live the King!

F-Words

Some words and arguments to avoid in law school exams

This post is the first in what I plan on making a short series dealing with some things that bother me while marking public law exams. I once wrote a post along these lines, but happily at Reading its very basic advice is not as necessary as it was where I used to teach. Do refer to it for 101-level stuff. And please also refer to Mark Elliott’s excellent and helpful post, over at Public Law for Everyone, on the importance of making an argument in an essay question (or indeed a longer-format essay). That would be the 201 module.

This, by contrast, is going to be “issues in” course. What this means, really, is a course in the professor’s pet peeves. Of course, different people have different ones, and these might only be mine. But I do hope that they are of some use, both to colleagues and to students, and I hope that they will make for some entertainment if nothing else. After all, the first lesson concerns f-words! No, no that f-word. There are others, including four-letter ones. The one I’ll mostly focus on is “fair”. But first, let me say something about “floodgates”.

Floodgates arguments generally suggest that A’s claim against B should not be entertained by a court, because if it is, other similar claims will be brought ― the floodgates of litigation will open ― and the courts will be deluged with more cases than they can handle. I don’t think that floodgates arguments are often successful in real life. If A’s claim against B is without legal basis or factual merit, it can be rejected, and the rejection ought to serve as a deterrent to analogous future claims. To invoke the floodgates argument is to implicitly concede that, at the least, there may be something to A’s claim. But having made that concession, an advocate and especially a court will find it awkward to peremptorily refuse doing justice for no other reason than to economise resources. If many analogous claims ― all possibly meritorious ― are out there, the injustice of refusing to consider them is only compounded.

As a result, floodgates arguments are rarely persuasive in student work either. Truth be told, they are often the mark of a weak script. It is sometimes difficult not to suspect that the student could think of nothing better, simply remembered this catchy name, and went with a floodgates argument for lack of an alternative. Perhaps even a weak argument, at least if it is used accurately, is better than none at all, though one might want to consider whether making an inherently feeble argument does not harm one’s cause by exposing the defects of one’s position. (This is certainly true of the “kitchen sink approach”; not only do many bad arguments not add up to a good one, but they make it clear that one hasn’t understood which arguments are worth making.) Anyway, if you are choosing among a floodgates argument and a different one, always go for the other idea, whatever it might be. I would suggest making it a rule to simply banish this particular f-word from your vocabulary. It is a crutch, and not relying on it will only help you by forcing you to think a bit harder and more creatively.

My beef with the other f-word, fair (or its derivative fairness), is much the same: it is a crutch makes students think they’ve made a satisfactory case when they haven’t. But the explanation is perhaps a little more complicated in this case, or at least harder to believe. Unlike the floodgates of litigation, fairness is not a fancy-sounding technical concept, but one that we appeal to all the time. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. Nobody wants to be against fairness, of course. But we should all be wary when someone ― including, I am afraid, a student in an exam answer ― seeks to persuade us by making opposition emotionally difficult rather than logically impossible. We should also be wary of making such arguments ― ideally, out of respect for our readers but, failing that, out of a self-interested concern not to arouse their suspicion that we might be trying to trick them.

More substantively though, fairness ― despite its intuitive appeal ― is also an elusive notion. Just what it means in any given context is often unclear. Now, sometimes ― and in our daily life, often enough ― we have a good, and, importantly, shared, sense of what fairness requires. If you insisted on choosing where to go for dinner with your friend last time, it is fair to let the friend choose now. If you were late to the pub, it is fair to buy your friends a drink. And so on. The trouble is that shared understandings of what is fair run out quickly in the kind of situations that law school exams, and indeed a great deal of law ― perhaps especially, though by no means only ― public law in the real world deal with.

Does fairness mean that people should be subject to human rights constraints or allowed freedom from them? Does it require government to seek parliamentary approval for a given course of action? Does it mean officials need to comply with rash, perhaps untenable promises to members of the public? Students ― and not only students, to be, ahem, fair ― may think that there are answers to such questions. But there are usually people on both sides of them. If you find one in an exam paper, you can be very confident indeed that there are serious arguments on both sides. And people on both sides probably think that their answer is fair. This suggests that no real concept of fairness is doing the work of compelling an answer one way or another. At best, people rely on intuitions about what is fair. At worst, they are actively covering up their true motivations under the specious rhetoric of fairness. (To be clear, I don’t suppose students do this often, if at all.)

Of course, these questions must have answers, if only provisional ones, and there are reasons why the answers are or ought to be one way rather than another. But fairness is not such a reason. There are other considerations involved. Some have to do with specific constitutional principles such as individual liberty, government accountability, the Rule of Law, the sovereignty of Parliament, or what have you. Others are policy arguments (including the dreaded floodgates, though to repeat it is a particularly weak one). Usually, more than one reason bears on a given answer. Relevant considerations sometimes complement one another, and sometimes pull in different directions. But it is their summing up, untidy and unsatisfactory as it sometimes is, that actually answers difficult questions, rather than appeals to fair play.

As with “floodgates”, I think that students should banish the other f-word from their exam-writing vocabulary. If you feel the itch to use it ― and, given its ubiquity, that is understandable ― you should ask yourself why you think that this course of action, or this approach to the problem, or this rule, is or would be fair. And then, give that explanation, in as much detail as you have room for, instead of speaking of fairness. Again, this will force you to think harder ― but it will also make for better results, because you will be discussing actual principles and policy arguments instead of hoping that the marker shares your intuitions, or at least understands them ― and neither is a given.


Whatever their differences in detail, marking grids at every law school I have known as either a student or a lecturer reward, first, understanding of the subject and then, to get really high marks, critical thinking and creativity. Clichés and stock arguments add little to a demonstration of competence, and actively get in the way of showchasing originality. The less you rely on them, the better off you are likely to be.

Some Major Questions About Major Questions

In West Virginia v EPA, the Supreme Court of the United States, wielding the “major questions doctrine” found that the EPA did not have the statutory authority to adopt regulations implementing the Clean Power Plan, initially proposed by the Obama administration in 2015.  In this post, I describe why I think this decision was ultimately misguided, how the major questions doctrine might be recast, and why some of the dissent’s concerns are themselves misguided. In short, while I share concerns about agency opportunism, I do not think this judicial creation is the solution.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has broad authority to establish regulatory “standards of performance” in relation to certain categories of pollutants. These include the adoption of the “best system of emission reduction,” taking into account various factors, that the EPA administrator “determines has been adequately demonstrated.” Under this provision, the EPA adopted a “generation-shifting” system rather than a plant-by-plant regulation system; in other words, it decided that the “best system of emission reduction” included generation-shifting. A generation-shifting approach, as I understand it—such as cap-and-trade, or investment in alternative sources—is a different sort of regulation because it purports to operate on a system-wide basis, rather than on an individual source basis. The EPA’s regulatory choice thus cut rather broadly to attack emissions across different sectors. There is much more detail in the opinions that I am leaving out for the sake of brevity.

The majority opinion (Roberts CJ) concluded that this was a “major question,” meaning there was “every reason to hesitate” before concluding that Congress meant to confer this authority on the EPA (20, see also Brown & Williamson, at 159-160). In order to draw this conclusion, Congress would need to include special authorization, or a so-called “clear statement.” In “major questions” cases, the majority tells us that “both separation of powers principles and a practical understanding of legislative intent” make it reluctant to find that the EPA’s stated authority here was buried in “vague” provisions like s.111(d) (19); here we see some concern about agency opportunism and attempts to expand statutory authority. The Court tells us that it has, as a matter of course, deployed the major questions doctrine in extraordinary cases where the agency asserts broad authority of economic and political significance (17). Put simply, as the majority frames it, the major questions doctrine is like a substantive canon of construction: the Court proceeds on its own assumption that Congress would not have wanted the EPA to have this authority, absent an explicit statement otherwise.

In dissent, Kagan J attacked the majority’s use of the major questions doctrine. Chiding the doctrine as a “get-out-of-text-free card” (28), Kagan J reasoned that the statute here was broad, but not vague (8). The breadth of the statute was by design. While this was so, Kagan J noted that the grant was also constrained: in concluding what the best system of emission reduction is, the EPA must consider “costs and non-air impacts” while making sure that the best system has been “adequately demonstrated” [7].

For Kagan J, the invocation of the major questions doctrine elided this delegation of power. She reasoned that the “doctrine,” such as it is, had only been deployed as part and parcel of ordinary statutory interpretation, determining the scope of delegated power conferred on an agency: “the text of a broad delegation, like any other statute, should be read in context, and with a modicum of common sense” [13]. Kagan J was concerned that the use of this special rule short-circuited the Court’s duty to actually determine what the statutory provisions meant, and whether the EPA’s regulation fit within the provision. Kagan J goes on to wax poetic about the importance of expertise and the administrative state (I’ve registered my opposition to these particular, age-old arguments before, and renew them to some degree below).

That said, I see a few problems with the majority’s recast of the major questions doctrine:

  • Despite the majority’s protestations otherwise, there has been a shift in the way the major questions doctrine works. Scholars, as I read them, tend to disagree about which cases mark the turning point, but I think it is fair to say that WV v EPA is the capstone. As I understood it, the doctrine was previously attached to Chevron deference. If a question was a “major question,” it was a reason to deny deference to the agency’s asserted interpretation; not a presumptive rule against ordinary agency action in certain, ill-defined “major” areas. But now the doctrine has taken on a life of its own; gone is Chevron. The lineage of this change does not suggest that it is justified.

 In Brown & Williamson, for example, the Court conducted a normal statutory analysis as prescribed under Chevron Step 1, and concluded that “Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products” (Brown & Williamson, 126, 132). It was only after this exhaustive analysis that the Court additionally concluded that, given Congress’ structured and deliberate scheme for tobacco regulation, the FDA could not likely have been given the authority to regulate tobacco products (Brown & Williamson, 159-160). This was not a standalone, substantive canon of construction; it was a tool of judicial common sense, an insight drawn from the application of the tools of interpretation, to determine that a statute precluded the agency’s view. Second, in Utility Air, the majority (Scalia J) questioned whether the agency’s construction could be reasonable under Chevron Step 2, given its “claim to extravagant statutory power” (Utility Air, at 20). Here, the “major questions” concern operates as a sort of defeasible outer limit that limits the range of reasonable options at Chevron Step 2. Even in King v Burwell, the Court used the major questions exceptions as a means to an end: to conclude that it should conduct an independent assessment of the statute in that case. In all of these cases, the major questions doctrine was operating more as an “add-in,” or “tie-breaker”: see, relatedly, fn 3 of the concurring opinion of Gorsuch J.

So, quite aside from the sotto voce overturning of these, weaker versions of the major questions doctrine, the consequences of moving from a deference rule (a rule changing the intensity of review, but not changing the legislature’s delegation process) to a delegation rule (a rule denying a power to delegate straightforwardly on an ill-defined set of questions at all)  is not small, and there are two. First, because the Court only offers a set of mushy guidelines for what constitutes a “major question” on which Congress will require an explicit statement, Congress may be left wondering how and when it must make itself “clear.” Second, on principle, Congress regrettably must—according to the Court’s standards—make itself clear. This was not required under Chevron. As Kagan J notes, the major questions doctrine—as deployed by the Court in WVA v EPA—basically shortcircuited this statutory analysis. Instead, rather than determining whether the statute supported the EPA’s reading, the Court was rather results-oriented: because the issue is big, even normal statutory authorization should not count, even though the EPA’s view was plausible (and certainly not vague—as Kagan J says, the issue here is breadth). It is plausible, as the majority suggests, that Congress did authorize this power in the text of its law. But this authorization was not explored, or otherwise, was inexplicably not enough.

  • Gorsuch J, in a concurring opinion, attempted to avoid this conclusion by stating that substantive canons of construction are accepted tools of interpretation. Indeed they are. But one should evaluate the lineage and triggers for these substantive presumptions, and at any rate, all should agree they should be used with caution and rooted in consistent doctrine and principle. Otherwise, they can be manipulable “get out of text free” cards. For this reason, many of the substantive canons are rooted in clear constitutional concerns: for example, some of the presumptions concerning federalism.

What is the constitutional basis of this form of the major questions doctrine?  One candidate might be the same pool of principles that grounds the non-delegation doctrine. But I think it is hard to justify this doctrine as some extension or analogue to the non-delegation doctrine (cf Cass Sunstein) in the mould of the Benzene Case. Undoubtedly, one can conceive of some important similarities—the Court has sometimes gestured to an asserted power as being too broad to justify Chevron deference. But, again, in all the cases, the problem was simply that Congress had foreclosed such extravagant regulation. Instead, the non-delegation doctrine, as a constitutional doctrine, is primarily concerned with the scope of delegated power. Courts seek an intelligible principle to determine whether the power is adequately guided. The idea is that, absent a guiding, legislative principle, an agency is exercising legislative power unconstitutionally, in a manner contrary to Article I.

While there are powerful historical arguments against the non-delegation doctrine that I am not equipped to evaluate, I take it as a given that it is alive and well, and that it—at least in some part—aims at preserving legislative power and control over administrative decision-making. Nonetheless, the new major questions doctrine deployed by the Court in WV v EPA is not, at least primarily, concerned with the breadth of delegated power per se. As Kagan J recounts, the delegation of power to the EPA in this case is, indeed, broad, but it is not beyond the pale. The EPA does have some meaningful constraints built-in to the statute, and such constraints likely save the delegation from any challenge on non-delegation grounds. The major questions doctrine, then, isn’t so concerned with the breadth of delegated power as much as the significance of the issue at hand. But issue significance does not necessarily equal broad delegated power; in other words, we can have broad delegated power in unimportant areas, which could plausibly raise non-delegation concerns, or we can have narrow delegations in important areas, which would raise major questions concerns. These doctrines are aiming at different things. As John Manning so eloquently said: “If the point of the nondelegation doctrine is to ensure that Congress makes important statutory policy, a strategy that requires the judiciary, in effect, to rewrite the terms of a duly enacted statute cannot be said to serve the interests of that doctrine.”

In whole, the result of this doctrinal shift is a complication of the basic task of the law of judicial review, and an arguable corruption of the legislation delegating the power at issue. The law of judicial review is designed to be an adjunct branch of statutory interpretation, to determine the scope of powers granted to an administrator. Whether Chevron has one or two steps, this is the core of the thing. With this new major questions doctrine, the law of judicial review is somewhat different. Less important is the text of the laws delegating power. More important is whether the court thinks the issue over which the power is delegated is “important” or “big” enough. This abstracts away from the core question on judicial review: does the agency have this asserted power to conduct this action, no matter how big the problem  may be?

II.

With these concerns in mind, I think it might be useful to consider how Canada deals with questions of this sort, because I think the doctrine aims at some of the same concerns as the major questions doctrine while avoiding some of the potential pitfalls, as I see them.

 In Canada, our going-in presumption is reasonableness review (for an apt description of why Canada gets this backwards in relation to the United States, see Leonid Sirota). This presumption can be rebutted, in which case the court reserves to itself the right to pronounce on the legal issue without any deference. One of the circumstances in which the presumption can be rebutted is in cases involving “general questions of central importance to the legal system as a whole” (see Vavilov, at para 58 et seq). This category has much in common with the gist behind the “major questions” category, but there are important differences. First, the justification for the central questions category in Canada is not concern about delegated power; rather, it is designed to protect the role of the judiciary as the most important external check on administrative power. Issues that are considered centrally important must be answered consistently by courts, because they engage the rule of law, over which the judiciary is the primary guardian. Notably, however, in defining a central question, the courts are careful not to unduly eat away at the legislature’s right to delegate power. As the Supreme Court says, “the mere fact that a dispute is ‘of wider public concern’ is not sufficient for a question to fall into this category—nor is the fact that the question, when framed in a general or abstract sense, touches on an important issue” (Vavilov, at para 61).

And so the questions recognized by the court concern the stability of the legal system, issues that transcend an administrator’s particular statutory grant of authority. These issues have typically concerned constitutional or quasi-constitutional issues. For example, in University of Calgary, the question was whether a decision of an administrator that a statute permits solicitor-client privilege to be set aside. The Court refused to defer in this case, because solicitor client privilege has a constitutional dimension, and the “question of what statutory language is sufficient to authorize administrative tribunals to infringe solicitor-client privilege is a question that has potentially wide implications on other statutes” (University of Calgary, at para 20).

Why is this doctrine preferable, at least on these points, to the major questions doctrine, as deployed in WV v EPA? For one, the Canadian version expressly forecloses the possibility that an issue’s importance factors into the analysis. Many issues can be characterized as important; this is the challenge of the law of judicial review, to channel and sometimes restrict administrative power over these important areas of public life. Second, the benefit of a rule restricting deference is that it can be justified with reference to fundamental tenets of the law of judicial review. There are good rule of law reasons, pertaining to the judicial duty to pronounce the law, to carve away deference in cases where an agency attempts to exert power in a way that may transcend its own statute, or engage quasi-constitutional norms. Legislatures should not be impliedly granted the power to, by delegation, carve away the core powers of judicial review. And so,  uniformity of the administrative justice system requires not percolation, but correct answers. This approach also answers for the problem of agency opportunism: an agency that seeks to manipulate its own powers in order to affect these broader areas of legal importance should be met with a resolute judiciary. Nonetheless, the category is pared down not to every conceivable important issue, but to core concerns of the judiciary that implicate the rule of law. With these more narrow justifications, I would venture that the Canadian law of judicial review—only on this score—may be more stable than the American.

III.

In the meantime, I do not expect nor suggest that American courts should look to Canada for guidance. Even still, I do not think that the US situation is as dire as the dissent and some commentators suggest. As Kristin Hickman notes, Congress can rectify the ruling in WV v EPA tomorrow (even if it should not have to): it can simply legislate a clear statement. To be clear, this is an additional, probably unjustified hurdle. But the ball is in Congress’ court.  And, as I have argued before, non-delegation limits on administration will not hobble administration, and may actually incentivize better deliberation and guidance.  Further, administrative government is vast, and few regulations are challenged such that this case will make a difference on a wider scale. These are the practical realities that limit this new major questions doctrine, but I admit there may be more I am simply missing or misunderstanding

Nonetheless, as far as it goes, the new major questions doctrine that matured in WV v EPA is unwelcome from my perspective. Unlike the non-delegation doctrine, it cannot easily be traced to the same constitutional concerns, and it is isn’t immediately clear to me that “clear statements” will really provoke much deliberation. The doctrine appears to be a wholly judicial creation; it complicates the law of judicial review, puts a hurdle up for Congress, and finds no real animating purpose, beyond nods to concerns already covered by the existing non-delegation doctrine. I stress, as I did above, that I too worry about “bureaucratic domination,” drift, etc. But these are concerns that are best kept in check by a legislature and by consistent and principled application of the law of judicial review. Creating an amorphous thumb on the scale, in this manner, is an ill-fit.

Nothing Doing

A brief rebuttal to responses to my last post on inappropriate criticism of the US Supreme Court’s abortion decision

My post yesterday, which took issue with what I see as disturbingly political criticism of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization has attracted a number of responses, and it might be worth offering a quick rebuttal to the negative ones. As with yesterday’s post, the aim is not to dunk on individuals, but to address what I see as trends.

Response #1: But there are American professors, to say nothing of the dissenting judges in Dobbs, who have criticized the decision!

Sure. And insofar as their criticism is based on constitutional argument, that’s great. But that doesn’t absolve the people who choose to criticise based on political rather than legal claims.

Response #2: Dobbs breaks the rules of stare decisis!

If most criticism of Dobbs by Canadian and other lawyers, law professors, and organizations were actually focused on its treatment of precedent, I would not have written yesterday’s post. But it just doesn’t. I have seen professors share cartoons of majority judges as Taliban.

I would also note that there is, at the very least, a danger of inconsistency when people put too much of an emphasis on arguments from precedent. To be sure, arguments about inconsistency or even hypocrisy aren’t as interesting as people sometimes think, because they don’t answer the question of when the inconsistent or hypocritical person is actually right. But from the standpoint of personal integrity the issue is worth keeping in mind. And so, how many of those Canadian readers who defend the US Supreme Court’s previous abortion decisions on this basis were as critical of the Supreme Court’s of Canada reversal of precedent on, say, assisted suicide as they are of Dobbs? How many would have been as critical if the 2016 election had gone just that little bit differently and a left-leaning US Supreme Court had reversed Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 US 310 (2010)?

Speaking of electoral outcomes and judicial appointments:

Response #3: The Dobbs majority judges were appointed by politicians who wanted to secure just this result!

So they were. But so what? A judicial decision stands or falls on its legal correctness. If it is correct, it doesn’t matter why the judge who made it was appointed. Ditto if it is wrong, of course. The issue of inconsistency or double standards is really worth thinking about here. The Justices appointed by Franklin Roosevelt were meant to uphold the New Deal policies, and did so. Earl Warren was a former politician, appointed by Dwight Eisenhower for crassly political reasons, so far as I understand. Are the decisions of the New Deal and Warren courts illegitimate for that reason alone? Nobody thinks that. Some were right, and some were wrong, and to say which were which we need to make a legal argument. So it is with Dobbs.

It’s also worth pointing out that the judges who dissented in Dobbs were also appointed with their views on this issue top of mind, and that their votes not only on this point but on almost every other are more closely aligned than those of their right-leaning colleagues. Yet somehow their votes are not dismissed as hackery for that reason.

And, before Canadians get self-righteous about just how political American judicial appointments are, they should recall that appointments to the Supreme Court are no less political, if perhaps less transparently political, here. So far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. If you take a different view, that’s fine too. But if you only proclaim this view in response to a decision you particularly dislike, I won’t take you too seriously.

And this brings me to

Response #4: But Dobbs is just different because it’s too important!

And, alternatively

Response #5: All constitutional decisions about rights are political anyway!

Thanks for making my point. You think that sometimes (#4), or indeed always (#5), constitutional adjudication is a political, not a legal, endeavour. This is a plausible view, but it is inconsistent with accusing the Dobbs majority of hackery ― they merely take the different side of a contentious political issue. And you should be advocating for the abolition of judicial review, à la Jeremy Waldron, because there’s no justification for having political decisions made by a small committee of unelected lawyers. As I pointed out yesterday, Dobbs is actually a step in the right direction from that perspective. If people were to take the Waldronian position openly, I’d debate them on the merits and be content. But when they insist on having judicial review of legislation, but only provided it goes just the way they like, I am upset and alarmed.

Turning Ten

Wishing Double Aspect a happy birthday!

Double Aspect turns ten years old today. I meant it to fill a gap in the blogosphere: the absence of a blog dedicated to Canadian constitutional law. Whether or not I have managed to fill that gap at least in part, I will let the readers judge. I would like to think that Double Aspect has at least enlivened things and provided a perspective that would otherwise have been missing from the Canadian conversation. Admittedly, doing so was not really part of the original plan, but I would like to think that it has been a beneficial, if at first unforeseen, development.

Meanwhile the blog developed in other ways too. For one thing, I have been fortunate to welcome fellow scholars as guests, either on an ad hoc basis or as part of various collective endeavours. Of these, the Dunsmuir Decade symposium which Double Aspect co-hosted with Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters is of course the most important and memorable one. It is also a reflection of another way this blog’s remit has grown: its expansion into administrative law, to become a “full-service” public law blog. And that, in turn, is mostly thanks to the biggest and best change that has happened over the last ten years ― the addition of Mark Mancini as a full-time co-blogger. Mark has made an incredible contribution to Double Aspect, providing fresh insights that make the blog a more interesting place than it would have been with me alone, and sometimes keeping it going when I was unable to.

Speaking of which: we have been silent over the last couple of months, which of course is much longer than I would like. For me personally there has been the small matter of starting a new job and moving to the United Kingdom, while facing a couple of awkwardly placed deadlines. I know that Mark too has had deadlines galore of late. (And he has managed to keep his Substack newsletter going through it all.) However, these are all temporary difficulties. We will be back to normal eventually ― though the next few weeks will still be tough. We aren’t stopping. It would be rash to promise ten more years, but you know what? Don’t bet against it!

A final thought, since I’m on the subject of the future. One can wonder about the ongoing relevance of the blogging format, in this age of podcasts and Twitter hot takes. The expansion of the Clawbies’ ― once the Canadian law blogging awards ― coverage into such media speaks to the way people consume their legal nerdery. One can also wonder ― as people already were years ago ― whether the future of blogging, if it has one, is not with sleek, professionally run outfits like the UK Constitutional Law Blog ― though there is still nothing of the sort in Canada. But I still think that the humble personal (as it then was) or small group (as Double Aspect now is) blog can do things that other formats cannot. As I wrote then

Even if the personal blog cannot compete with a professionally edited platform for high-level scholarship on pure quality, it has its own, different value. It can be a way for new and rebellious voices to enter into and enliven the conversation. It can be a proving ground for people and ideas. It can be the record of a coherent or developing thought process. In can, in short, be many things that a edited blog [or a podcast!] cannot. Call me a blogging romantic if you will,

But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.